From Iceland — Ask An Expert: What's Up With The Squirrel In The World Tree?

Ask An Expert: What’s Up With The Squirrel In The World Tree?

Published May 18, 2023

Ask An Expert: What’s Up With The Squirrel In The World Tree?
Catherine Magnúsdóttir
Photo by
Stock Photo

Mythology is kind of quirky. A lot of the elements people came up with to explain the universe seem really random. Like a squirrel that runs up and down a giant magical tree that connects different worlds. Where did it come from? What is it up to? We went to Gísli Sigurðsson, folklorist and Head of the Department of Ethnology at the University of Iceland, for an answer.

The World Tree (aka the Ash of Yggdrasil) is described in the Edda as spreading its branches over the world and extending across the sky, connecting to different worlds.

“It is described as a white tree trunk that gets its color from the white mud that the three norns pour over it from the well of Urður,” Gísli explains. “And everything that gets this white mud on it becomes white-ish and transparent like the membrane inside the shell of an egg. So, if you’re Snorri Sturluson’s pupil in the 13th century spending time in his hot tub and someone starts telling you this story of the World Tree in the sky, white-ish and half transparent, the only white trunk in the sky is the Milky Way.”

Studies in Ethnoastronomy and Archeoastronomy have explored how cultures interpreted the night sky and formulated stories from observing movements in the sky that are visible to the naked eye. According to Gísli, “this description in Snorri’s Edda fits quite well into that ideological framework. Because the text clearly tells us that everything is in the sky.” In Norse mythology, we find descriptions of an eagle (aka Aquila) at the top of Yggdrasil and a dragon called Níðhöggr gnawing at one of the roots, which might be the Scorpius constellation. Gísli gives some examples of animals in Yggdrasil and what they do:

“The swans are just swimming around, being white, because of the white mud they’re swimming in. Then there is this goat living on top of Valhalla’s roof and gnawing and eating the leaves and filling the major function of providing mead for day long drinking for the Aesir. The eagle is just hanging around it seems. Although we have a reference in the poetry that he is a marker to find the door to Valhalla.”

Wolves also play an important role in the mythology and the open jaw of one can be seen in the V-shaped Hyades constellation, trying to devour the sun on its path. “The sun moves just above it and in front of it in June, escaping the wolf’s mouth once a year, giving reason to celebrate,” Gísli explains.

And then there’s Ratatoskur, the squirrel running up and down the tree, spreading shit talk of the eagle and the dragon — like an unlucky child of divorce, but often characterized as a bit of a trickster enjoying the drama. One explanation for the squirrel in the World Tree is that it could have been seen and interpreted in what we know as the Lacerta constellation. Meteor showers occurring within this constellation might give the impression that it’s moving, like a squirrel dashing up and down the tree trunk, aka the Milky Way.

Or as Gísli puts it: “You see some visible phenomena in the sky and then you tell a story about it to explain why it appears to be moving and that’s why it’s a squirrel running up and down.”

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